On the Boundaries of Our World

Poor and rich are concepts Heidegger used in his 1929-1930 lectures, published posthumously as Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik. Welt-Endlichkeit-Einsamkeit”. (The Basic Concepts of Metaphysics. World – Finitude – Solitude). He used them in relation to a world that – because of its metaphysical essence – is one of his key concepts, in addition to the ones mentioned above (world, finitude and solitude). However, this is not the point I intend to discuss here even though it is very interesting. What really interests me now is what Heidegger said later. He said that the world of the animal is poor although this does not necessarily mean it is imperfect. When a lizard lies on a hot stone in the sun, its world is lacking in nothing. It has access to warmth which it seeks, although it does so driven by instinct or drive, a sudden impulse generated by desire. The stone means everything to the lizard, offering protection from possible danger and its surroundings providing it with nourishment. What could be more wonderful? The stone demarcates the boundaries of its existence. Human existence, as would seem self-evident to us, cannot be compared with animal existence. It is created by a rich world, a world filled with varied types of activities, relationships to things and to other people, although animal drive or the desire to create a secure world around itself is not alien to it either.

What could comprise the richness of someone’’s world, a human world? What conditions might be vital or at least conducive to this world becoming ever richer? I do not think that it is enough, for example, to travel to various countries, the kind of tourist experience that is so attractive to present-day Europeans; for this kind of experience, as is often the case, may be imbued with a stereotypical perception of others and may not contain anything but general banalities that are widespread in the world. We are definitely enriched by knowledge as such, by scientific knowledge. Knowledge undoubtedly widens our horizons, offering great possibilities for comparing phenomena. We are even more enriched by events that we witness, events of historical significance but also by experiences, feelings and most certainly by our dreams. Our world becomes richer when we are able to perceive not only that which is superficial and visible but rather that which is hidden and which we are able to catch a glimpse of in a moment of intuition that may be rare, but is precise and direct, and which helps us gain clarity. Only through this clarity, as Husserl has taught us, can we enter visibly comprehensible significant relationships and through them develop our perception from its initially naïve state, see further afield and perceive things that we consider original, drawing the most precious truths from this source. Looking at the world from this vantage point we seem to be lifting – albeit for a moment – the veil that covers the world. And this is when this idea of a world, let us quote Husserl again, that is dark and impenetrable suddenly reveals itself in its full concrete form.

Not everyone is blessed with such a penetrating perception of the world. Not everyone wants to think about it. Man is susceptible to various slogans, fashions but also to peer pressure, to promises by demagogues who claim to offer a bright future. All too often man follows others blindly without noticing that his world is constantly under threat, and that he is encountering possibilities that should not easily be dismissed. Two such mutually exclusive possibilities are almost always relevant and the choice between them is of particular importance to us today.

The individual and social world often takes the form of the world of the lizard enjoying a moment of quiet warmth. It becomes a kind of repository of ready-made, traditional modes of acting which man faithfully observes and regards as unique values. If it is an individual who builds such a world it can be understood as an expression of a selfish, and therefore not very attractive, yet understandable attitude of an averagely sensitive, slightly cowardly and slightly conceited person. It is quite a different matter if this is how a group of people or a whole society behaves, locking itself into its group solitude and rejecting everything that appears to be alien. Moreover, this behaviour reaffirms the fact that it is different, the values it has long cherished, traditions, customs and thinking that follow certain patterns rather than other ones.

What is the point of following any other patterns, other theories, other ways of thinking or acting? All they can do is destroy our traditions, impose on us alien forms of being that are no better, or that, indeed, are certainly worse and in many ways more dangerous. This kind of attitude, especially if it is saturated with an ethical intransigence, is usually not based on any specific arguments. It derives solely from irrational fear of the unknown or from a false ideology, bred by lapsed inferiority complexes and by a specific interpretation of historical events that forces us to adopt its pattern of a narrowly understood patriotism. Where can we see this kind of attitude? Usually in places with a very low political culture, something that has recently been the case not only in the distant Far East or Africa but also here, in Eastern Europe, where traces of wartime obstacles and suffering are still alive, reinforcing blind loyalty to tradition on the one hand and distrust of others on the other. The lizard attitude is also encouraged by a sense of economic backwardness in comparison with others which, in turn, generates the complex of poverty. It also breeds a perception, not always justified, of being exploited.

A closed world usually finds its steadiest support in religion, especially when it is alive, influencing the life of society and generating fear of secularisation, pushing out of sight rational arguments that promote openness to the point of view of other civilizations. These situations occur naturally but they are dubious in ethical terms. Moreover, they prevent dialogue and thus also mutual understanding. How can they be resisted, how can people be persuaded to try and fight them? I do not know. All I know is that a closed world gets impoverished and withers away day by day.

This kind of world is usually based on political conservativism which, as Leszek Kožakowski has said, is derived from the race of Bossuet, de Maistre and Maurras, proclaiming that the best world order is the one decreed by God. All kinds of traditionalism that persist to this day in various forms (for example, as right-wing nationalism) always reach the conclusion that it is the voice of evil that speaks in those who are against, and that evil has to be punished. Punishment is therefore an integral part of the world. De Maistre praised the figure of the executioner and the Spanish inquisition.

And yet, it is possible to build a world open to others, a world that is not afraid of a multitude of languages, traditions, social systems and religions regarding them instead as forces for multidirectional development. Pluralism is not the same as relativism; it is rather an expression of different ways of searching for the optimal. Such a world knows that development relies on diversity and anything new derives primarily from argument, from discussion, from a transition to what is different and not from something unified. Such a world also knows that all attempts at unification, particularly intellectual ones, cannot but end in tragic acts of violence. Plato taught us that openness does not exclude respect for our own traditional values as well as the values of others but he also warned us about getting locked into them. And the same applies to differences that emerge between people without excluding cooperation. Cooperation is the more fertile, the more different are the worlds of its participants. We must make use of other cultures and experiences, for they enrich our world tremendously, and we must seek mutual understanding, the kind of understanding that can rise above the fear that usually results from a commitment to national traditions.

And thus in building their worlds societies face two alternatives: uniformity or pluralism, closedness or openness. The choice of a closed world might seem anachronistic amid today’’s realities, something that might condemn us to social and political separation. This separation could be so terrible that we may end up being condemned to economic and civilizational stagnation. As for us here in Poland, we can find examples of right choices in our ancestors, be it those from Krakow, who went to study in Padua or Bologna and on their return created our own university based on other examples, later inviting the most renowned Italian architects and jointly with other European nations adhered to the common Greco-Roman tradition in law, philosophy and literature.

This transcript of a lecture given by Barbara Skarga at Jagellonian University on 15 March 2007 first appeared in Tygodnik Powszechny.